(ORDO NEWS) — This has been the main theme of science fiction for years, but will we ever get the chance to do it for real, and if so, when?
We often imagine that human consciousness is simply the input and output of electrical signals in a network of computing units, which is comparable to a computer. The reality, however, is much more complex. For starters, we don’t know how much information the human brain can hold.
Two years ago, a team at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle (USA) mapped the three-dimensional structure of all neurons (brain cells) located in one cubic millimeter of a mouse brain, which is considered an outstanding event.
In this tiny cube of brain tissue, the size of a grain of sand, the researchers counted more than 100,000 neurons and more than a billion connections between them.
They were able to write the relevant information into a computer, including the shape and configuration of each neuron and connection, which required two petabytes, or two million gigabytes of memory.
And to do this, their automated microscopes had to collect 100 million images of 25,000 sections of a miniature sample continuously for several months.
If this is what it takes to store complete physical information about neurons and their connections in a single cubic millimeter of a mouse brain, you can imagine that collecting this information from a human brain would not be a walk in the park.
However, extracting and storing data is not the only problem. For a computer to resemble the mode of operation of the brain, it must be able to access any and all stored information in a very short period of time: the information must be stored in random access memory (RAM) rather than on traditional hard drives.
But if we tried to store the amount of data collected by researchers in computer RAM, it would take up 12.5 times the capacity of the largest single-memory computer (a computer built on memory, not data processing) ever. created.
The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons (the same number of stars as you can count in the Milky Way) – a million times more than in a cubic millimeter of a mouse brain.
And the estimated number of connections is a staggering ten to the power of 15. That is, ten and 15 zeros – a number comparable to individual grains of sand contained in a two-meter layer of sand on a 1 km long beach.
The question of storage space
If we don’t even know how much information the human brain can store, then we can imagine how difficult it will be to transfer it to a computer. The first step is to translate the information into a code that a computer can read and use after it has been stored. Any mistake in doing so can be fatal.
A simple rule of thumb for storing information is to make sure you have enough space to store all the information you need to transfer before you start. Otherwise, you will have to know exactly the order of importance of the information you store and how it is organized, which is far from the case with brain data.
If you don’t know how much information you need to keep, you may run out of space before the transfer is complete, which may mean that the information line may be corrupted or unusable by the computer.
In addition, all data will have to be stored in at least two (if not three) copies to prevent the catastrophic consequences of possible data loss.
This is just one problem. If you were careful when I described the remarkable achievement of researchers who managed to completely preserve the three-dimensional structure of a network of neurons in a tiny piece of mouse brain, then you know that this was done on the basis of 25,000 (extremely thin) tissue sections.
The same technique would have to be applied to your brain, since only very rough information can be extracted from brain scans. Information in the brain is stored in every detail of its physical structure of connections between neurons: their size and shape, as well as the number and location of connections between them. But would you agree to have your brain sliced up like this?
Even if you agree that we cut your brain into very thin slices, it is extremely unlikely that the entire volume of your brain can be sliced with sufficient accuracy and correctly “assembled”. The human brain has a volume of about 1.26 million cubic millimeters.
If I haven’t already talked you out of this procedure, think about what happens when time is taken into account.
It’s a question of time
After death, our brain quickly undergoes major changes, both chemical and structural. When neurons die, they soon lose their ability to communicate, and their structural and functional properties change rapidly – meaning they no longer exhibit the properties they exhibit when we are alive. But even more problematic is the fact that our brains age.
Starting at age 20, we lose 85,000 neurons a day. But don’t worry (too much), we’re basically losing neurons that haven’t been put to good use, they weren’t asked to participate in information processing.
This starts a program of self-destruction (so-called apoptosis). In other words, every day, several tens of thousands of our neurons kill themselves. Other neurons die due to exhaustion or infection.
However, this is not too much of a problem, because at age 20 we have almost 100 billion neurons, and at this level of death, by the age of 80 we will lose only 2-3% of neurons.
And if we don’t get a neurodegenerative disease, then our brains at this age will still reflect our way of thinking that we have maintained throughout our lives. But what is the right age to stop, scan and store?
Would you rather keep an 80 year old mind or a 20 year old one? If you try to save your mind too early, you can miss out on a lot of memories and experiences that would define you in the future. But if you try to transfer the mind to the computer too late, you risk saving a dementia mind that doesn’t “work” as well anymore.
So given that we don’t know how much memory is needed, that we can’t hope to find enough time and resources to fully map the 3D structure of the entire human brain, that we’ll have to cut you into millions of tiny cubes and slices, and that’s essentially impossible.
Decide when to transfer, I hope you are now convinced that this will probably not be possible for a long time, if at all. And if that were the case, you probably wouldn’t want to take that risk. But if you’re still tempted, I’ll continue.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that even if we could accomplish the impossible and overcome many obstacles, we still know very little about the underlying mechanisms.
Imagine that we were able to reconstruct the complete structure of one hundred billion neurons in Richard Dixon’s brain, along with each of the connections between them, and we were able to save and transfer this astronomical amount of data to a computer in triplicate.
Even if we could access this information on demand and instantly, we would still be faced with the great unknown: how does it work?
After the question “what” (what information is available?) and the question “when” (when is the best time to translate?), the most difficult question is “how”. Let’s not be too radical. We know some things.
We know that neurons communicate with each other based on local electrical changes that propagate along their main processes (dendrites and axons). They can be transmitted from one neuron to another directly or through exchange surfaces called synapses.
At the synapse, electrical signals are converted into chemical signals that can activate or deactivate the next neuron in line, depending on the type of molecules (called neurotransmitters). We understand many of the principles that govern this transmission of information, but we cannot decipher them by looking at the structure of neurons and their connections.
To find out what types of connections exist between two neurons, we need to apply molecular methods and genetic tests. This means refixing and cutting the tissue into thin sections. Staining methods are also often used and sections must be compatible with them. But this is not always compatible with the slices needed to reconstruct a 3D structure.
Thus, you are now faced with a choice even more difficult than determining the best time in your life to give up existence. You will have to choose between structure and function – the 3D architecture of your brain and how it works at the cellular level.
This is because there is no known method of collecting both types of information at the same time. And by the way, it’s not that I want to stir up an already serious drama, but the way neurons communicate is another layer of information, which means that we need much more memory than the incalculable amount that was previously assumed.
Therefore, the ability to download the information contained in the brain into computers is extremely remote and may forever remain out of reach. Perhaps I should stop there, but I won’t. Because there is more to say. Let me ask you a question in return, Richard: Why do you want to put your brain into a computer?
Is our mind more than the sum of its (biological) parts?
In the end, I may have a useful, albeit unexpected, answer. I will assume that you want to transfer your mind into a computer in the hope of existing outside of your life, that you would like to continue to exist inside the machine after your body can no longer realize your mind in your living brain.
However, if this hypothesis is correct, I must object. If you imagine that all the impossible things listed above were one day resolved and your brain could literally be “copied” into a computer, which would completely imitate the functioning of your brain, then the moment you decide to transfer, Richard Dixon would cease to exist.
Thus, an image of the mind transferred to a computer would not be any more alive than the computer in which it resides.
This is because living beings, such as humans and animals, exist because they are alive. You might think that I just said something completely trivial, bordering on stupidity, but if you think about it, there is more to it than meets the eye.
The living mind receives information from the surrounding world through the senses. It is attached to the body, which it senses based on physical sensations.
This results in physical manifestations such as changes in heart rate, breathing and perspiration, which in turn are felt and contribute to the inner experience. How would it work for a computer without a body?
All of these inputs and outputs are not likely to be easily simulated, especially if the copied mind is isolated and there is no system that senses the environment and acts in response to the input.
The brain seamlessly and constantly integrates signals from all the senses to create internal representations, makes predictions about these representations, and ultimately creates consciousness (our sense of being alive and being ourselves) in a way that is still the case for us. a complete mystery.
Without interaction with the world, even subtle and unconscious, how could the mind function even for a minute? And how could it develop and change? If the mind, artificial or not, has no entrance or exit, then it is devoid of life, like a dead brain.
In other words, having made all the sacrifices mentioned earlier by transplanting your brain into a computer, you would not be able to keep your mind alive.
You can answer that then you will require modernization and ask to transfer your mind into a complex robot equipped with many sensors that can see, hear, touch and even smell and taste the world (why not?), and that this robot will be able to act, move and talk (why not?).
But even then, it is theoretically and practically impossible that the necessary sensors and motor systems provide sensations and produce actions identical or even comparable to those provided and produced by your current biological body.
Eyes are not just cameras, ears are not just microphones, and touch is not only pressure assessment. For example, the eyes not only transmit light contrasts and colors, the information from them is combined shortly after it reaches the brain to encode depth (distance between objects) – and we don’t yet know how.
It follows that your transferred mind will not be able to relate to the world in the way that your current living mind does. And how can we even connect artificial sensors to a digital copy of your (living) mind? What about the danger of being hacked? Or equipment failure?
So no, no, no. I have tried to give you my (science-based) point of view on your question, and while my answer is “no”, I hope I have helped lessen your desire to ever put your brain into a computer.
I wish you a long and healthy life, Richard, because this is definitely the place where your mind will exist and flourish as long as it is realized by your brain. May it bring you joy and dreams – something that androids will never have.
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